Chicago Public Schools snared its biggest federal grant to date when it won $27.5 million to pilot a merit pay initiative for teachers, making Chicago the largest district in the country to experiment with performance-based pay.

In addition to bonuses that are expected to average from $4,000 to $5,000, the program will include professional development and a career ladder for teachers who want to stay in the classroom. And while part of the bonuses will be based on a teacher’s success in raising student achievement, they will also be based on evaluations from more experienced peers—a concept CPS is also experimenting with in its union-run Fresh Start schools. (See Catalyst, November 2006)

CPS consulted with key outside stakeholders to write the grant application, including representatives from The Joyce Foundation, the Chicago Teachers Union, the Chicago Public Education Fund and members of CEO Arne Duncan’s advisory council of teachers. Stakeholders are expected to help CPS craft the pilot as well.

Jesch Reyes, a teacher from Sumner Academy who is a member of Duncan’s teacher advisory board, says he strongly supports the incentive plan and believes it will help keep teachers in CPS.

“Teachers, especially new teachers, feel overwhelmed by the workload. This would be a nice way to reward them,” Reyes said at a press conference announcing the grant.

“Chicago had a solid plan,” says Terrell Halaska, an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education who attended the announcement. “It focused on the entire city and focused on getting teachers into high-need schools and keeping them there.”

CPS has also won private backing for the pilot. The Public Education Fund contributed $400,000 in planning money, and the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation expects to provide a substantial grant, says Broad spokeswoman Erica Lepping.

The pilot is expected to launch in 10 schools in fall 2007 and in 30 additional schools over the following four years. Low-scoring schools with high teacher turnover will be targeted. To participate, 75 percent or more of teachers at the school must vote to do so.

Rewards, but also training

Specifics on how schools will be chosen and how the program will work have yet to be hashed out. In particular, CPS has yet to design a system for measuring student growth in test scores—the linchpin of the pilot.

The pilot will be modeled on the highly regarded Teacher Advancement Program, developed by the Milken Family Foundation and overseen by the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching. The program is now in place in more than 130 schools in 13 states.

Teacher Advancement provides “a nice combination of supports and awards,” says Gretchen Crosby Sims, education program manager at Joyce. “It rewards, but also trains.”

One reward offered to teachers is the chance to advance in their field without leaving the classroom.

Teachers can move up a 3-step “ladder” to become career, mentor and master teachers. Mentor and master teachers work a longer year, earn more and have more responsibilities, such as helping to evaluate their peers.

In Chicago, National Board certification could be one criterion for becoming a master teacher, Duncan has said. Teachers who sit on his advisory board might also play a role in the selection process.

For professional development, teachers meet weekly in grade-level or subject-area groups to analyze student performance data and learn research-based strategies to raise achievement in areas where students are weak. Master or mentor teachers lead the groups. Teachers also have individual plans for professional development.

In addition to student test scores, teachers earn bonuses based on classroom evaluations. Principals and master or mentor teachers conduct the evaluations four to six times per year. Other staff are also eligible for bonuses if schoolwide achievement improves.

The bonuses are in addition to teachers’ raises, a structure CPS expects to follow, says Carmita Vaughan, who helped write the grant proposal.

The Chicago Teachers Union, which signed a general letter of support for Chicago’s grant application, is nevertheless wary of performance-based pay. Following the announcement of the grant, the union issued a press release saying that any additional compensation teachers receive should be “distributed fairly and equitably.”

“Our members don’t want evaluations based on test scores,” says Rosemaria Genova, the union’s publicist.

Yet TAP has been instituted in other cities with union support, including Minneapolis, where the district had already been experimenting with performance-based pay, says former Minneapolis Federation of Teachers President Louise Sundin.

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